Hoping Against Hope

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"Hope is necessary in every condition," said Samuel Johnson. Most people would agree. It hardly seems sensible to contradict the man who termed patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel" and a tavern chair "the throne of human felicity." Yet throughout my life I have felt generally wary towards hope and have often doubted its wisdom, and even sometimes its necessity.

This "negative" attitude can in part be blamed on Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I found compelling as a teenager. Camus talked about learning to live "without appeal" — hope was a distracter, a dilutor, a sop, distorting any clear comprehension of reality. Camus was not advocating despair — he was simply convinced that hope was illusory, and therefore inadvisable. Not only was hope a waste of time, it was an instrument of avoidable cruelty, "the worst of evils" according to Nietzsche, "for it prolongs the torments of man."

I still think Camus’ notions make good sense, and still treasure the opening lines of Woody Allen’s parody, My Speech to the Graduates, which begins: "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." I always feel peculiarly at ease reading those words. There are worse things to do with existential angst than laugh.

As someone constitutionally disposed to Camus’ absurdity of hope and Woody Allen’s farcicality of hope, I was predictably Not Hopeful when I opened Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope this summer. I assumed it would court the warm, fuzzy, nausea-inducing sentiments of the politician venturing to speak "from the heart." But Obama’s book does not turn one’s stomach or even raise one’s hackles unduly. Proposed solutions to problems can sometimes sound sketchy, improbable, too good to be true. And Obama is a bit too willing to praise and defend military intervention. While critical of the current Iraq War, he seems charmed by the last one, and expresses no misgivings about the war in Afghanistan. Support for military "solutions" may be the standard tune in American politics, but it is disappointing to hear Obama swell the chorus so readily.

All in all though, The Audacity of Hope is written by a man who sounds articulate, capable, intelligent, conscientious, considerate, and genuinely committed to a politics beyond the narrow interests of himself or his party. Americans ought to feel, if not hopeful, at least grateful that Barack Obama is in the running.

"He who despairs over an event is a coward, but he who holds hope for the human condition is a fool," Camus wrote in The Rebel. Obama is neither a coward nor a fool — and I don’t think Gore Vidal’s shrewd one-liner has been lost on him: "It is not too wise ever to be too optimistic when it comes to the human race." Obama’s brand of hope is not stupid or blind… yet. It seems to fall within the healthy scope of Dr. Johnson’s "necessary."

However, let us recall that it is the nature of politics to turn vital things impotent and necessary things pointless. Politics is the mill that grinds spirit to letter. Hope’s a pleasant enough starter but if it’s all Obama’s got cooking, better tighten your belt. As Francis Bacon observed, "Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper." Or as the wonderfully pragmatic Ben Franklin put it, "He that lives upon hope will die fasting." A hungry public feels drawn to hope, but it will take more than cotton candy to fill our stomachs.

Anyway, it’s down to Obama or McCain. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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